Thursday, 20 May 2010

Different Grading Models - what are the pros and cons of each?

I have been struck by the many different ways in which martial arts students can be graded. In Ariel's latest post called 'Anxiously waiting for class tonight', she says that she is expecting to test any time now in one of her lessons. Apparently her instructors don't announce testing dates and she doesn't appear to have a defined syllabus. This got me thinking that there are indeed many ways to grade students in martial arts. I have come across a few different grading models and I'm sure they all have different advantages and disadvantages.

In my karate club we have club gradings. These are held monthly, at a weekend (not in normal class times). All students are provided with a provisional date for their next grading. If, in the preceding two or three weeks, you are considered ready to grade by this date you are invited to attend the grading session. If you are not quite ready then your grading is postponed to a later date.

In a grading session there may be anything from about 6 students to 16 students grading together ranging over 3 or 4 different kyu grades. You are tested against a pre-set syllabus and the grading officer will alternate between segments of the syllabus for each kyu grade present. Combinations are assessed in kyu grade groups but kata are performed individually. All partner work is assessed one pair at a time or sometimes in groups of pairs (if there are a lot of people testing). When you are not being assessed you either stand quietly at the back or you may be allowed to quietly practice. Gradings generally take around 2 hours to complete but my last one took 5 hours because there were so many of us.

We are graded by our own instructor, though this is not the case for all clubs in our organisation (SSK) as some of the instructors are not qualified grading officers. In these clubs the instructor invites an instructor with grading officer status to grade his/her students. At kyu grade, assessment is by a single grading officer. At the end of the grading all the students line up and the individual marks for each segment for each student are announced and students congratulated. New belts can be bought on the day or later and certificates are presented a week or two later in class.

For Dan gradings the situation is different. These are not club level gradings but are done at the organisation level in front of a panel of three high ranking grading officers, one of which may be your own instructor.

This way of grading is in complete contrast with my jujitsu/kobudo club. This club is part of the World Jujitsu Federation (WJJF) and follows a WJJF approved syllabus. All kyu gradings are done locally, but externally to your own club, by a high ranking grading officer who must not be your own instructor. Gradings are held quarterly at weekends and your instructor enters you for a grading when he thinks you are ready.

At the grading there will be several dozen people of all kyu grades waiting to test (in either jujitsu or kobudo). However students are called up individually to the 'grading mats' from the 'training mats', along with their uke and are assessed on their whole syllabus within 10 to 20 minutes. All students then wait for the presentation ceremony at the end where there grade is announced and they are presented with their certificates.

Again, Dan gradings are done at national level.

When my husband was training in jujitsu at another club the grading model was different yet again. Kyu gradings were done within normal classes. There would usually just be one student testing and the assessment would take place at a suitable point in the lesson. The rest of the students would sit around the edge of three sides of the mats and any black belts present would sit along the fourth side along with the instructor who would perform the grading.

The student testing would be assessed on their pre-set syllabus, then the black belts or instructor could ask for any techniques to be repeated. At the end of the grading the lesson would resume whilst the instructor considered his 'verdict'. The student testing would then be approached privately by the instructor and told of the outcome. At the end of the lesson an announcement would be made to the whole class and the certificate presented. Again, Dan gradings were done at national level.

Lets unpick what is happening in these different grading models:

1. Graded internally by own instructor vs graded externally by appointed grading officer.
2. Graded within normal class lessons vs graded in special grading sessions.
3. Graded individually vs graded in groups
4. Graded to set syllabus vs graded to unknown or individually set syllabus

What are the advantages and disadvantages of these methods?

1a. Graded by own instructor:
Advantage: Grading in a familiar environment by someone you know - less stressful.
Disadvantage: The need to maintain objectivity in assessment may lead to more stress for the instructor because he/she knows the students and may know of circumstances that lead the student to perform sub-optimally.

1b. Graded by external grading officer:
Advantage: Less stressful to grade students you don't know - easier to remain objective.
Disadvantage: More stressful to student - unfamiliar surroundings and people. Grading officer may have slightly different interpretation of the syllabus to student's own instructor so student may have to be adaptable (this might be viewed as an advantage of course!).

2a. Graded in normal classes:
Advantage: Easier to arrange. Familiar environment. Other students get a 'preview' of what to expect themselves when graded at that level.
Disadvantage: May be viewed as disruptive to normal lessons.

2b. Graded in special grading sessions:
Advantage: Can grade a lot of students together. Can focus entirely on the grading - not concerned with needs of non-grading students.
Disadvantage: Takes a lot more organisation. Grading sessions can take a long time to complete for the instructor/grading officer.

3a. Graded individually:
Advantage: Student gets instructors/grading officers full attention for whole of grading and the grading is comparatively short.
Disadvantage: May be more stressful for student as they are focus of attention all the time.

3b. Graded in groups:
Advantage: Lots of students can be graded at one time. Students very supportive of each other during the grading.
Disadvantage: Students and instructors/grading officers have to maintain high level of concentration for a long time.

4a. Graded to set syllabus:
Advantage: Student knows in advance exactly what they will be tested on and can prepare.
Disadvantage: No flexibility. Doesn't cater for students with special needs i.e disabled students who can learn some techniques effectively but cannot do others. Makes it difficult for these students to progress with training.

4b. Graded to unknown or individual syllabus:
Advantage: Unknown syllabus - tests student's ability to be adaptable and think on their feet. Student needs a broad range of knowledge and techniques. Individual syllabus - tailored to students strengths/needs rather than weaknesses. Enables students with disabilities to progress through the system.
Disadvantage: Unknown syllabus - harder to prepare for and more stressful. Individual syllabus - student may not receive training in full range of their martial arts system. Both - may result in variable standards of achievement for different students - no consistent standards or benchmarks across all students

This is not an exhaustive list of the pros and cons of different models of gradings. Do you know of any other grading models? What do you think are the advantages and disadvantages of these? What do you think is the ideal grading model?

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Dan Prager said...

Any grading system is going to involve trade-offs, as your Pros and Cons suggest. Our Federation switched from club gradings to centralised panel-based gradings early in my martial arts career to improve inter-rater reliability.

BTW: You might be interested in rendering the arguments in posts like this as a diagram. Check this out and let me know what you think.

Ariel said...

It's interesting to hear about the different grading systems. Thanks for the mention, Sue!

In my class, we do have a defined syllabus for each rank, however, the requirements for each belt rank are only part of what we may be tested on. When advanced belts test, they usually have to demonstrate the requirements for their next belt in addition to most or all of the previous material on the syllabus.

Black belt testing is different though. It's held on a separate day from regular class and only one candidate can test on that day. The test is held in front of the grandmaster, the instructors, and all the black belts in our association. And the test lasts like 3-4 hours.

I have only been involved in two different grading systems. The first was a group grading on a specified day that took place twice a year. The second one at my current school -- during class, in front of my instructors and the students only, when the instructors feel that the student is ready to test.

I have to say that in my experience, I much prefer the second method, though I think group gradings work well too. I just like the more individualized test where there's less people grading at one time and the instructors can really concentrate on the few students testing.

Anonymous said...

Interesting question. Obviously each method has its merit and detractors: for me the best way would be a combination of the different approaches, I do think for black belt the examination should be conducted by an impartial jury outside one’s own dojo since this will augment the quality and recognition of the achievement. In our club we have the following system for grading: in the beginning there’s always a fixed curriculum, up till blue belt the grading is done during class by sensei while the rest of the class carries on with their assigned exercise(s). This lowers the stress factor and the requirements for the lower belts are not that tough yet allowing them to grow and get used to the process of testing. From blue belt on there’s still a fixed curriculum but the grading is done in front of everybody, there’s also some one-on-one unarmed sparring and the jury is made up of sensei and all the higher belts present from brown belt on (naturally sensei’s vote carries the most weight and no one should be allowed to judge someone equal to their own level). This is more stressful, the requirements are higher and a greater performance is expected. For brown belt the same procedure is followed except you have to know much more, there’s sparring against multiple opponents and you may choose your own techniques (the attacks are fixed, the defenses are up to you) allowing you to specialize and get really good at a core set of techniques. For 1st Dan there are two exams: one internally and one for the federation. The unofficial exam is held in the club outside of the normal hours, no-one is allowed to be present except of course the person testing, his ukes and the jury. The material tested consists of both fixed exercises and sparring, both should get a satisfactory grade or you will flunk. The jury consists of sensei and other black belts with possibly one outsider experienced in another art, usually of at least black belt or instructor level (for my exam it’ll probably be one nidan from our old club and the academy-owner, a full instructor in thaiboxing, jeet-kune-do, kali & shooto). For the federation the procedure is the same except the examination is public and the requirements are somewhat different: for the unofficial test you should be able to demonstrate 3 defenses to each attack from the kyu-grades along with basic weapon handling (knife, stick and kubotan), the defenses are freely chosen. For the federation you make your own program and submit it beforehand: there are five categories (grabs, body/headlocks, kicks & punches, weapons & ground-defenses) and for each category you must select your own attacks and defenses, the defenses should be within a technical category (atemi, throws, locks, strangulations) usually 10 each. Naturally you shouldn’t use the same technique twice (even if it is against a different attack), this ensures technical diversity and proficiency). I think the official requirements are something like this:

1) grabs: 10 with atemi, 10 with throws, 10 with locks, 5 with strangulation (this can be done as a restraining technique on the ground since applying a choke directly is considered quite difficult)
2) body/headlocks: same deal
3) kicks & punches: idem
4) weapons: idem, there should be at least 2 weapons (stick, knife, belt/chain, bottle, pistol, rifle)
5) ground: about 10 defenses overall, regardless of category

Sparring is both one on one and against multiple opponents, with or without weapons. You’ll also be asked some theoretical questions (anatomy, history, technique) and show and explain some basic techniques. The jury consists of black belts from other dojo’s (your sensei may watch but he’s not allowed to cast a vote or appeal the decision of the jury), usually the chairman is a shihan. ...

Anonymous said...

I think this system of grading combines the best of both worlds and ensures a pretty high quality overall. The problem with in-house gradings is that the quality is only upheld by one man and there could be conflict of interest: your exam could be tough as nails or it could be a walk in the park depending on his attitude and preferences. In my old dojo the quality decreased dramatically during the last two years and this was in large part due to sensei’s disinterest: I’ve seen people pass after showing only 5 or 6 techniques and no sparring whatsoever, the intervals between belts weren’t respected anymore (it almost seemed as if he wanted to make as many black belts as possible before his retirement) and agreements were violated: the guy I partnered for brown belt got hit by a knife, the rule was that if you get hit in the vitals during knife-defense it’s over, no matter how you did before that but he was allowed to carry on and passed without a glitch. At about that time I began to lose interest (I even quit for a year) and I refused to test for black belt even though I was asked repeatedly (I could probably be a nidan if I wanted to but at what price?). Who wants a black belt if everybody can get one? My gradings now will be very tough (sensei promised to attack me personally during the stick to stick exercises to ensure my blocks were good, gulp), I’m training my ass off and since my general endurance needs work I’ve started a training regimen of regular running (3x a week) and extra calisthenes every other day. After that it’s hope for the best and expect the worst: the most important requirement for shodan is fighting spirit and keep on pushing yourself even if you’re dead tired or confused/overwhelmed. This Sunday we had a federal seminar, the topic was krav maga: at the end we sparred 2 minutes each (4 to 5 people, all at least blue belt, one in the middle and being constantly attacked with a variety of weapons). It was tough and exhausting but I think I did pretty well even though sensei claims my reaction-time still needs work and I slackened off near the end (then again he’s my sensei so it’s his job to push me and since he’s better he’ll always have complaints). Still I much rather have him as my teacher than someone who doesn’t challenge you and lets you make mistakes or slacken off. Last Friday we were practicing kicks against the shields, the total number of students was uneven so I paired up with him. I was quite tired and didn’t pay enough attention (he did warn me though) so he threw the shield at me when I stepped forward to kick and yelled at me to keep my guard up. My ego did get bruised a bit (not to mention my nose which got hit full force) but I knows he means well and I’d much rather get hit during training than in a real fight. Tough love…


PS: I’m opposed to multiple people grading at once since it’s quite impossible to watch them all closely even if it’s only a small group. Also if allowed to rest during the grading it’s not that stressful or physically challenging anymore (the goal still is to be able to defeat an unknown and hostile assailant in unfamiliar surroundings under less than favourable circumstances) and the stress and fatigue you’ll experience in the dojo is nothing compared to the real thing. Train hard, fight easy. More sweat during practice makes for less blood in reality.

Sue C said...

Hi Dan, I agree with the need for inter-rater reliability. I would expect that this could probably still be achieved in club gradings if occasionally a moderator was present from another club

I checked out the BCisive online thing - it does look like something I could use in this blog. I wanted to display some of the info in this post in a table but couldn't figure out how to do it. The BCisive thing may have helped so thanks.

Hi Ariel, Individual testing does have its merits for both instructor and student. If my instructor graded us all individually he'd do nothing but grading all the time - there's so many of us!

Hi Zara, sounds like a well planned and comprehensive grading system - tough as well!

I understand your reservations about group grading but I suspect it lends itself better to karate than jujitsu. Our instructor only has to watch several people at a time during the kihon phase of the grading. We have to just keep repeating the combination we are demonstrating over and over whilst he watches us all one by one. All the partner work and katas are demonstrated individually so we are all watched very carefully! Our instructor has over 150 students spread through 3 clubs so individual gradings just wouldn't be practical.

Steve said...

I think it's pretty common in BJJ to get the belt promotions without formal testing, often by surprise. This is yet another model that you didn't address. This guerrilla style promotion system has its own pros and cons.

Even schools such as Roy Dean's academy, far more formal than most, the "testing" for a promotion is a formality, where the student demonstrates techniques and then rolls with progressively more difficult opponents until he's awarded his belt. You can really see Roy Dean's Judo and Aikido influence in these belt demonstrations, and I have to say, they're very cool. Many of these, BTW, are recorded and posted on YouTube and are great to watch, if anyone's interested.

Sue C said...

Hi Steve,

I hadn't heard of a 'guerilla' style grading system before! Are you training them for warfare? (just joking). Actually I can see some advantages of this type of promotion - a student knows he's got to apply himself well to training all the time because he's constantly being assessed - and what a nice surprise to suddenly be awarded your next belt when you didn't even know you were being tested!

Steve said...

SueC, the biggest advantage of eliminating testing and the formality surrounding it is that it really removes emphasis on rank.

While we still look ahead to our next belt promotion, we aren't told, "Okay, Steve. You'll be testing for your purple belt in 2 months. Get ready." We just train. We tend to get out on the mat and work on our weaknesses, develop our strengths and do our best every class.

I think that an emphasis on formality and belt testing can really creates an emphasis on rank and promotion over consistent training, where focus on training ebbs and flows in a predictable cycle that follows the testing schedule.

John Coles said...

Hi Sue

Ineresting blog and sort of fits in with the chapter I'm currently writing for my book on the science behind the tactics and techniques of the martial arts (see

Writing about the common training methods (kata, randori, and shiai) I've had cause to reflect on the uniqueness of the main method used by Jan de Jong - Shinken Shobu no Kata. It is not a kata in the strictest sense of the word. In fact, it is a unique combination of the kata method and the randori method. I have not come across this type of training anywhere else, or definetly not to the extent used by Jan de Jong. He used this method to teach, train, and grade students in his jujutsu, aikido, pencak silat, and women's self defence classes.

This comment is too small to go into the details of this method but you have inspired a new blog in your discussion of the different methods used.

Keep up the good work.

John Coles

Sue C said...

Thanks John, I'll look forward to reading the post I have inspired!


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